Original Works by Joe Ryan
@ AmericanCivilWar.com

What Caused the Civil War

The Dred Scott Decision

On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Supreme Court's decision against Dred Scott, a slave who maintained he had been emancipated as a result of having lived with his master in the free state of Illinois and in federal territory where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise. The decision did much more than resolve the fate of an elderly black man and his family: Dred Scott v. Sanford was the first instance in which the Supreme Court invalidated a major piece of federal legislation. The decision declared that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the federal territories, thereby striking a severe blow at the legitimacy of the emerging Republican party and intensifying the sectional conflict over slavery.

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Raising freedoms child slavery
Raising Freedom's Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future After Slavery

Previously untapped documents and period photographs casts a dazzling, fresh light on the way that abolitionists, educators, missionaries, planters, politicians, and free children of color envisioned the status of African Americans after emancipation

One of the most important cases ever tried in the United States was heard in St. Louis' Old Courthouse. The two trials of Dred Scott in 1847 and 1850 were the beginning of a complicated series of events which concluded with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1857, and hastened the start of the Civil War.

Dred ScottWhen the first case began in 1847, Dred Scott was about 50 years old. He was born in Virginia about 1799, and was the property, as his parents had been, of the Peter Blow family. He had spent his entire life as a slave, and was illiterate. Dred Scott moved to St. Louis with the Blows in 1830, but was soon sold due to his master's financial problems. He was purchased by Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks, and accompanied him to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. During this period, Dred Scott married Harriet Robinson, also a slave, at Fort Snelling; they later had two children, Eliza and Lizzie. John Emerson married Irene Sanford during a brief stay in Louisiana. In 1842, the Scotts returned with Dr. and Mrs. Emerson in St. Louis. John Emerson died the following year, and it is believed that Mrs. Emerson hired out Dred Scott, Harriet, and their children to work for other families.

On April 6th, 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed suit against Irene Emerson for their freedom. For almost nine years, Scott had lived in free territories, yet made no attempt to end his servitude. It is not known for sure why he chose this particular time for the suit, although historians have considered three possibilities: He may have been dissatisfied with being hired out; Mrs. Emerson might have been planning to sell him; or he may have offered to buy his own freedom and been refused. It is known that the suit was not brought for political reasons. It is thought that friends in St. Louis who opposed slavery had encouraged Scott to sue for his freedom on the grounds that he had once lived in a free territory. In the past, Missouri courts supported the doctrine of "once free, always free." Dred Scott could not read or write and had no money. He needed help with his suit. John Anderson, the Scott's minister, may have been influential in their decision to sue, and the Blow family, Dred's original owners, backed him financially. The support of such friends helped the Scotts through nearly eleven years of complex and often disappointing litigation.

It is difficult to understand today, but under the law in 1846 whether or not the Scotts were entitled to their freedom was not as important as the consideration of property rights. If slaves were indeed valuable property, like a car or an expensive home today, could they be taken away from their owners because of where the owner had taken them? In other words, if you drove your car from Missouri to Illinois, and the State of Illinois said that it was illegal to own a car in Illinois, could the authorities take the car away from you when you returned to Missouri? These were the questions being discussed in the Dred Scott case, with one major difference: your car is not human, and cannot sue you. Although few whites considered the human factor in Dred Scott's slave suit, today we acknowledge that it is wrong to hold people against their will and force them to work as people did in the days of slavery.

  Dred and Harriet Scott
Dred and Harriet Scott
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Dred Scott Book Title

The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the Supreme Court's decision against Dred Scott

The Dred Scott case was first brought to trial in 1847 in the first floor, west wing courtroom of St. Louis' Courthouse. The Scotts lost the first trial because hearsay evidence was presented, but they were granted the right by the judge to a second trial. In the second trial, held in the same courtroom in 1850, a jury heard the evidence and decided that Dred Scott and his family should be free. Slaves were valuable property, and Mrs. Emerson did not want to lose the Scotts, Early Photo of the Old Courthouseso she appealed her case to the Missouri State Supreme Court, which in 1852 reversed the ruling made at the Old Courthouse, stating that "times now are not as they were when the previous decisions on this subject were made." The slavery issue was becoming more divisive nationwide, and provided the court with political reasons to return Dred Scott to slavery. The court was saying that Missouri law allowed slavery, and it would uphold the rights of slave-owners in the state at all costs.

Dred Scott was not ready to give up in his fight for freedom for himself and his family, however. With the help of a new team of lawyers who hated slavery, Dred Scott filed suit in St. Louis Federal Court in 1854 against John F.A. Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother and executor of the Emerson estate. Since Sanford resided in New York, the case was taken to the Federal courts due to diversity of residence. The suit was heard not in the Old Courthouse but in the Papin Building, near the area where the north leg of the Gateway Arch stands today. The case was decided in favor of Sanford, but Dred Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On March 6th, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case. Seven of the nine justices agreed that Dred Scott should remain a slave, but Taney did not stop there. He also ruled that as a slave, Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States, and therefore had no right to bring suit Chief Justice Roger B. Taneyin the federal courts on any matter. In addition, he declared that Scott had never been free, due to the fact that slaves were personal property; thus the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional, and the Federal Government had no right to prohibit slavery in the new territories. The court appeared to be sanctioning slavery under the terms of the Constitution itself, and saying that slavery could not be outlawed or restricted within the United States. The American public reacted very strongly to the Dred Scott Decision. Antislavery groups feared that slavery would spread unchecked. The new Republican Party, founded in 1854 to prohibit the spread of slavery, renewed their fight to gain control of the Congress and the courts. Their well-planned political campaign of 1860, coupled with divisive issues which split the Democratic Party, led to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States and South Carolina's secession from the Union. The Dred Scott Decision moved the country to the brink of Civil War.

Ironically, Irene Emerson was remarried in 1850 to Calvin C. Chaffee, a northern congressman opposed to slavery. After the Supreme Court decision, Mrs. Chaffee turned Dred and Harriet Scott and their two daughters over to Dred's old friends, the Blows, who gave the Scotts their freedom in May 1857. On September 17, 1858, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis and was buried in St. Louis. His grave was moved in the 1860s to Calvary Cemetery in northern St. Louis, and marked due to the efforts of the Rev. Edward Dowling in 1957. Dred Scott did not live to see the fratricidal war touched off at Fort Sumter in 1861, but did live to gain his freedom. The ultimate result of the war, the end of slavery throughout the United States, was not something Dred Scott could have foreseen in 1846, when he decided to sue for his freedom in St. Louis' Old Courthouse.

Background: Slavery in Missouri

Picking cottonSlavery in Missouri was different from slavery in the deep south. The majority of Missouri's slaves worked as field hands on farms along the fertile valleys of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. St. Louis, the largest city in the state, maintained a fairly small African-American population throughout the early part of the nineteenth century. Life in the cities was different for African-Americans than life on a rural plantation. The opportunities for interaction with whites and free blacks were constant, as were those for greater freedom within their slave status. Because slavery was unprofitable in cities such as St. Louis, African-Americans were often hired out to others without a transfer of ownership. In fact, many masters illegally allowed their slaves to hire themselves out and find their own lodgings. This unusual state of affairs taught African-Americans to fend for themselves, to market their abilities wisely, and to be thrifty with their money.

Slavery was not a "Southern" problem alone. Many northern states phased out slavery as late as the 1830s, and states such as Delaware and New Jersey still had slave-owning residents as late as 1860. On a local level, residents of Illinois owned slaves (under long-term indenture agreements of 40 years or longer) during the period of the Dred Scott trials, and a special provision in the Illinois constitution allowed slaves to work in the salt mines across the Mississippi from St. Louis as long as they were not held there for over one year at a stretch. Many people in southern Illinois supported slavery. No slaves in the St. Louis area picked cotton however, and few worked in farm fields. Most worked as stevedores and draymen on the riverfront, on riverboats, in the lead and salt mines, as handymen, janitors and porters (like Dred Scott), and as maids, nannies, and laundresses (like Harriet Scott).

Additional Information

In addition to slaves, St. Louis also had a fairly large free black community. African-Americans in St. Louis were able to live within the strict "black codes", which were harsh laws that applied to all African-Americans, both free and slave. Many free blacks owned businesses which carted goods from place to place after they Slaves and free blacks on the St. Louis levee were off-loaded from river boats. Real estate was also a business known to free blacks. Others owned large barber emporiums, some with real gold faucets, marble countertops and crystal chandeliers, which were used by all the important white men of the town. These barbers were able to gather information that their white customers discussed and pass it along to the black community. Many became so rich that they became known as the "Colored Aristocracy" of St. Louis.

By 1835 an African-American church had started in St. Louis; Sundays were also days of rest for the slaves, when gossip and news could be passed from one African-American to another, in or out of church. African-Americans who were literate would read newspapers aloud to others at night or on Sunday. These circumstances made urban slavery unusual. An African-American could acquire accurate information about nearly any subject, including how to sue for one's freedom.

Because slavery in St. Louis became less and less profitable as years went by, masters hired out their slaves, usually for periods of a year at a time. This meant that slaves encountered a certain amount of uncertainty regarding whom they would be working for from year to year. Often, slaves, were able to save a cut of their wages for themselves. This meant that after years of saving, they might be able to purchase their own freedom. Several St. Louis slaves did just that, although it was expensive; an average healthy male slave sold for about $500 in 1850, roughly $14,000 in today's money. In several cases, a father would purchase his freedom, set up a business, and save enough money to purchase his wife and children from their masters; he could then set them free legally.

Missouri slave-holders were worried about the rise in the population of free blacks. Many whites provoked incidents meant to strike fear into the hearts of free blacks, or to get them to leave Missouri. It was generally believed by slave-holders that free blacks stirred up discontent among the slaves, and caused them to run away, slow down their work, or sue for their freedom if they were eligible.

The Dred Scott Courtroom in St. Louis' Old Courthouse

The courtroom where the Dred Scott cases were heard is no longer in existence. In 1855, even before the Scotts' campaign for their freedom ended, the courtroom received extensive renovation. The large courtroom, as originally constructed, occupied the entire west wing. An architectural flaw was discovered which threatened the wing's ceiling on the first floor, and additional support was required. As a result, a new corridor running on an east-west axis was added, dividing the large courtroom where the Scott trials were heard into two smaller courtrooms. A display about the trial is exhibited in this corridor, near the original site.

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